Leadership lesson: Knowing how and when to say 'no'

Challenge: As the new head at a failing school, what do you prioritise?

As the new headteacher of Woodberry Down Community Primary School, I faced pressure to focus on operational problems around issues such as governance and HR. However, my main concern was the core areas such as the appallingly low literacy levels in the school.

When I became head in 2001, I already faced a number of challenges. The school serves a deprived part of North London, the Woodberry Down estate, which is home to some of the worst housing conditions in England. Furthermore, the student profile included 60% of pupils being FSM, 70% EAL and 25% refugees.  The school experienced several turbulent years and consequently was placed in the Ofsted category of “serious weakness”.

Mistake: Prioritising the operational before the core

My biggest mistake in my first year as Head of Woodberry Down was to bow down to external pressure and focus on operational problems. For that first year I spent far too much time engaged in HR, premises and governance issues. For example, work had been commissioned on part of the schools site that eventually proved unnecessary and costly. Researching the paper trail and eventually extricating ourselves out of the various situations was time consuming. Likewise, engaging in every staffing issue from recruitment to disciplinary hearings provided another distraction.

How situation was rectified: I went back to basics and got involved in teaching

After my first year, with HR issues down to a minimum, a new governing body in place and unnecessary building works out of the way, I removed focus away from operational concerns and onto our core problems and began with the low literacy levels.

To tackle our literacy problem, I adopted a new literacy programme to be used across reception to Year 3 and in half of Years 4 6. When the teacher involved in teaching Year 5 / 6 suddenly left, I made the unpopular decision to take the group myself.

I began to get an increasing amount of criticism for not being strategic, for not delegating and was often told that as a headteacher I should not be teaching. The programme itself also received a lot negative responses from people outside the school. However, it was important to me to be actively involved in the programme. I was able to witness slowly but surely, the programme making real progress and I had become increasingly obsessed with the idea that every child could and would learn to read.

In 2003 our SATS results painted a negative picture. For reading in Key Stage 1, 69% were at level 2+ and for English in Key Stage 2 were 65%. Despite my thoughts on SATS, these results were disappointing and demoralising and for my dedicated staff and hard working students too. But we believed in the programme and stuck with it and the results were worth it. In 2004 94% achieved level 2+ in reading at KS1 and 77% achieved level 4+ in KS2.

And the success continued. From 2004 onwards, the reading results in KS1 have been consistently above the national average and from 2006 2008 Year 5 achieved 80% level 4+ in English.

Lesson learnt: Knowing when and how to say ‘no’.

The experience with the literacy programme taught me several lessons such as how to implement change and how to motivate staff and students. However, the biggest lesson it taught me was how and when to say no.
As a Headteacher my role and responsibility was to provide leadership to staff and pupils and that meant having to have the courage and conviction to say no. In the early days this was terrifying but I quickly learnt that as long as I maintained a professional tone of voice and fully explained my decision for saying no, it became easier to do. Yes, occasionally if met with persistent resistance, I would simply ask the other person “can you guarantee that your decision or choice of action would provide a better outcome?”
I recognise that saying no can sometimes leave the person you say it to feeling undermined and that is why I place a lot of emphasis on tone of voice and explaining my reasoning behind my decisions. However, my job is not about sparing the feelings of adults but about doing the best thing for children.
My aim has always been to ensure we did the best for our pupils and my determination to develop the literacy programme, be fully involved in it and to eventually teach it myself was always about tackling a core problem: low literacy levels. As long as I remembered this, I found it easier to say no to issues that took the focus away from teaching and learning.


Do you have a career lesson to share? Please email helen.beckett@tes.co.uk

Greg Wallace is executive principal for London Fields/Woodberry Down Federation in the London Borough of Hackney. Both schools had Ofsted inspections in Autumn 2008: Woodberry Down was judged ‘outstanding’ and London Fields came out of special measures and was judged a ‘good and improving’ school.He has been headteacher of Woodberry Down Community Primary School since 2001. In 2005 the school was recognised on Ofsted’s list of outstanding schools and in 2006 Greg won the ERA School Leadership award at The Education Show in Birmingham. The school was shortlisted for the Evening Standard award for Outstanding Primary School in Challenging Circumstances and was runner up in the ERA Educational Establishment of the Year award 2007.